Showing posts sorted by relevance for query las hurdes. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query las hurdes. Sort by date Show all posts

Friday, 10 July 2020

Las Hurdes- A remote corner of Extremadura with a terrible history

Just to say don't let this put you off, we have travelled all around Las Hurdes, the scenery is amazing and knowing its history gives the experience and extra depth.

Crossing Las Hurdes today is like  any other corner of Extremadura, Castilla or Aragón: paved roads for its residents, the “jurdanos” and tourists, new towns, raised behind the ruinous “black architecture” of slate slabs, healthy people with thriving agriculture.
No one wants to remember or to be reminded of a past marked by all kinds of stigmas, real or imaginary: starvation, illiteracy, savagery, poverty, malaria, tuberculosis, alcoholism, hysteria, incest, polygamy, sodomy, typhus, ringworm, smallpox, trachoma, syphilis, goitre and cretinism.
Las Hurdes was a notorious place, becoming mythical with stories about  its inhabitants; deformed bodies like monsters with large heads and bowed legs caused by rickets, edema and osteoarthritis, a closed in-bred population hidden away in the ill-fated valleys behind the mountains. 
Chroniclers and travellers have perpetuated the horrors that they observed over the last 200 years: P. Nieremberg, Fray Tomás González, Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, George Borrow, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Miguel de Unamuno, Maurice Legendre, Gregorio Marañón, J. Goyanes, José Mª Gabriel y Galán, Luis Buñuel, Antonio Ferres, Armando López Salinas and, more recently, Luis Carandell, Víctor Chamorro and Maurizio Catani.
In the mid-19th century, the biblical propagandist George Borrow heard of “a small nation or tribe of unknown people who spoke an unknown language, who lived there since the creation of the world, without crossing with other creatures and without knowing that there were other beings besides themselves ”(The Bible in Spain, 1842).
The Jurdanos were thought to be a singular race descended, according to legends, from the ancient Roman garrisons, scarecrows who walked naked or in rags, hiding in the thickets of the Batuecas. Word spread that they were political or religious refugees, such as the Moors expelled from Castilla and Andalusia or Jews escaping from the inquisition. For Gregorio Marañón, the doctor who accompanied the investigation of 1922, these people were “Spanish like the others, of the same race, with the same customs, the same religion and the same language; but more hungry than those of the poorest Castilian villages, almost entirely sick, an immense,mountainous retreat inhabited by people who seemed to have escaped from a hospital”Today Rodríguez Ibarra, president of the Junta de Extremadura, declared with rage: “There are still many visitors who come to Las Hurdes with a 'safarian' spirit, a video camera at the ready to capture the images that Buñuel had immortalized years ago, impossible to reproduce today”  Some environmentalists and archaeologists express their displeasure at the‘ intolerable ’advance of progress. People no longer have goitre; the roads that access Las Hurdes are nine meters wide; running water reaches all the houses; the towns have electric light.

 Two Iconic films made about Las Hurdes in the 20th century. 

The first is a record of the visit made by Alfonso XIII in 1922 accompanied by doctors and clergy. The images could be of medieval peasants living in extreme poverty and destitution. The statistics are awesome, thousands of people dying of starvation and disease, 15 children in every 100 born as what they describe as "cretinos" cruelly afflicted by congenital extreme mental and physical disorders. Goitre was extremely common due to iodine deficiency.

The second film is Tierra sin pan , Land without bread, a documentary made by Buñuel in 1933. Obviously not much has changed since the royal visit of 1922.  It is haunting work with its strange images of goats crashing down a ravine and a donkey being covered in honey by fallen hives and stung to death by thousands of bees, the corpse of a baby being transported over rough terrain and a river to bury it in the nearest graveyard;mentally afflicted boys leering into the camera as they jabber unintelligibly; a seemingly old woman with a goitre, breast feeding a baby, in fact the woman is only in her 30s ; frightening and disturbing images from the master of surrealism.
But look more carefully, Tierra sin pan is a film which breaks down the distinction between fiction and documentary. Many commentators have said that the voice-over narration and the particular subjects Buñuel chose to depict simply parody the documentary genre. However, at this point in the history of cinema the documentary mode was in its infancy. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North: a story of life and love in the arctic (1922) was probably the most well-known film from this genre and there weren’t many others out there. The documentary as a genre didn’t have a fixed set of syntactic conventions that would have been available for film makers like Buñuel and his contemporaries to take as raw material for a parody. Like the grandmaster of contemporary cinema, Abbas Kiarostami, Buñuel does not believe in any fixed boundary between fiction and non-fiction film making.

However, one argument that Buñuel was parodying the documentary mode is the droll and sardonic voice-over juxtaposed with the terrible images on the screen. Actually the original film was completely silent. Bunuel provided the narration live during screenings. Abel Jacquin was hired to read the French voice-over in 1935 which was cut into the film along with sections of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.

The voice-over is detached and uninterested, casually remarking on disease and death but it is not a mere parody, Buñuel subverts the documentary, it becomes a propaganda film. Several sequences in the film were staged for effect, the falling goat and the bee stung donkey. Bunuel anticipated many future experiments with the documentary mode that wouldn’t come for another thirty years in the history of cinema, he transgressed the fiction/documentary boundary to indite both the Catholic church and the Spanish for allowing a place like Las Hurdes to exist, a real hell on earth.

This film was banned upon it’s release. Buñuel would go on to produce films for the Spanish Republics film industry: Don Quintin el Amargo, La Hija de Juan Simon, Quien Me Quieri A Mi? and Centinela Alerta. In 1937 he produced a Civil War documentary called Madrid 1936 (or Espana Leal en Armas) but he did not consider these as part of his artistic ouvre.

You may also wish to see this, it's an animated film of the making of Tierra sin pan
And finally, a little video about Las Hurdes today

Sunday, 22 November 2020

A trip to Las Hurdes and the waterfall of Chorro de la Meancera at El Gasto

We left  the finca early as it's a 2 1/2 hour journey to the tiny pueblo of El Gasto, literally the end of the road, a very winding and steep road.

Our aim was to do the hike between El Gasto and the powerful waterfall known as Chorro de la Meancera.

We were impressed by the effort spent on making the walk along the river accessible and safe, much easier than we imagined to reach such a remote site. We particularly enjoyed the well constructed
boarded walks suspended around the rocks of the river valley.


The views down the valley and up to the amazing crags were exciting before getting to the main attraction, the waterfall itself. The water seems to irrupt from a narrow crack in the crag and falls with mighty force for over 100 metres crashing into a pool before tumbling down the river over smooth rocks and ledges.

The day was sunny and warm, a wonderful place to linger and breathe in the surrounding nature but I would love to come back on a gloomy day with rain and possibly some thunder and lightening for a really gothic romance experience.

We walked back on the same route with fresh perspectives. 

On re-entering the village Manfred and Lucy headed off for a drink while I wanted to find some original primitive dwellings built of dark slate giving these Hurdes villages the name "pueblos negros" notoriously featured in Buñuel's  film "Tierra sin pan". Also wanted to find some natural honey, Las Hurdes has always been famed for its honey, one of the few products the inhabitants could sell for cash.

 When roads were built covering the original mule tracks over Las Hurdes it was possible to bring building materials and modern life invaded these remote villages, buildings were thrown up with hideous results, no reference to the nature of the terrain or natural building materials. But who can blame them?  They had been driven out of their hovels in these wild mountains by the deprivations of extreme poverty and hunger to work in big cities or further afield in France and Germany in the 60s and 70s. They returned with money to improve the dire living conditions but unfortunately they chose to build in an urban style with several floors using cheap materials which have not aged well, a pity. I was hoping to find at least some vestige of old dwellings, an important part of the history of Extremadura when life had been so diverse with traditions, cultural differences, costume and even dialects depending on the area. There were more old houses than I expected, all huddled together at the extreme end of the village next to the river. The alleyways between the ruins filled with weeds and rubble, a mule observed me from a stable that had no doubt once been inhabited by a family.

In the past it was recorded  that not only were the people here were so restricted that they could not make bread but also they built with no chimneys, letting the smoke from cooking fires escape where it could through the rafters and roof of slate slabs. I saw that none of the old houses had chimneys or even windows, just one primitive wooden door. A vision from the past appeared,  a woman sitting at her door with smoke billowing through her roof, she might have been 80 and probably remembers the time before roads, electricity and piped water when the only food was foraged in the woods or from tiny patches of cultivation by the river which were regularly ruined and flooded every winter, when the village was just this collection of old houses with no modern conveniences at all. 

She sat there quietly with memories of a life lived through amazing changes, it was as recent as  her parents generation that the bizarre and mysterious life of the people here inspired real horror stories of disease, incest, mental and physical afflictions and incredible superstitions..... See this post  

P.S. Found the honey, bought 500 g of the most wonderful tasting honey for €7.00, no label but straight from the bee keeper.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

W. Eugene Smith - Spanish Village 1951- Life Magazine

An ancient method of spinning flax yarn

W. Eugene Smith was an America photo journalist working for Life magazine. He came to to the Extremadura village of Deleitosa in 1951 and spent some time there recording the daily life of the village. These images are extraordinary, they show a life that seemingly had not changed in its gruelling poverty for hundreds of years. The faces of the people are sculpted down to the bone by hard work and little to eat. Such was Franco's rural Spain in Extremadura. The image of the the three Guardia Civil seems to portray the very hard and cruel truth of keeping order, fascist order that is. And how well they succeeded and for how long, no wonder it took Spain such a long time to launch itself into the 20th century as these images testify.

Guardia Civil wearing their ridiculous patent leather hats

Another, seemingly less important, but telling level of fascist dictatorship was fashion dictatorship. My mother told me how she was stopped by the Guardia Civil in Madrid while travelling between
England and Portugal in the late 1950s, She was wearing some lovely black linen capri pants, the latest thing every where else but the sight of her parading around in these was definitely NOT ACCEPTABLE !! She was given a stern lecture and sent off to change into something ........something more FASCIST.
Grain flying as women winnow the wheat on the eira

Deleitosa is not in Las Hurdes the scene of Buñuel's documentary film 'Las Hurdes-Tierra sin Pan'
 ( The Hurdes- Land without Bread) which was made in 1933, it became an iconic and, being Buñuel, controversial style of documentary, by the way demonstrating the dire poverty of rural Extremadura. Las hurdes still bears this stigma and is not happy about it but these images show that any village in Extremadura was suffering the same fate and nothing had improved in the 20 years separating the two projects. 'Tierra sin Pan' was banned from showing in Spain for several year. I wonder why? Fortunately it was beyond Franco's powers to stop foreign journalistic reports. Bravo Eugene!

Friday, 27 April 2012


Miranda del Castañar, many houses painted with geometric designs
Sierra de Francia is an area bordering Las Hurdes in the north of Extremadura, it takes about 2 hours to reach from Finca al-manzil. Almost the whole area has been declared an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve,an area of outstanding natural beauty and cultural interest. We were certainly impressed by the gorgeous woodlands including a rich variety of trees; cork and ilex oaks, pine, alder, chestnut, beech and birch as well as numerous orchards of fruit trees, particularly cherry. As one winds around the lanes of the sierra there are stupendous vistas of the Gredos, still with snow at this time of the year.
 A network of ancient paths connects the villages, very well signposted, easy walking through the woods and orchards but we were literally led along a primrose (and violet) path having been misdirected by a mischievous old man in blue overalls who emerged out of nowhere to send us off through a very wild wood which ended in a bog. I think he was duende, a goblin. Still it was a  lovely walk.

The villages themselves are delightful, they have a vivid resonance of a different age, almost all intact within the original walls, hardly any new development. Some of the houses are very ramshackle, almost ruinous, crumbling away in narrow twisting lanes. Peering into the dark, musty interiors gives a real feeling of past centuries, interesting to experience but maybe not to live in. The architecture is mainly wooden beam and lathe construction with brick and some stone. The history of the area is interesting. The villages were originally developed by Moors no doubt because of the abundant water and fertility of the land. Some of them remained after the reconquest in the XIII century becoming Mozarabes but continuing with traditions, particularly in the decorative arts and musical instruments.  Mozarabe influence can be seen in some church interiors and I think, rather fancifully maybe, that the bold geometric painting on some houses looks very Moroccan, these designs can be seen in Moroccan rugs, ceramics and clothing today. During the fiestas the traditional costumes of the women include extraordinary necklaces made of coral and amber with heavy filigree work, just as one still sees today at Moroccan festivities
 After the reconquest the area was heavily re-populated with French families hence the many names in the area including "Francia".

San Martin del Castañar is a compact village with a stream running through it and a some castle walls now guarding the cemetery. The church of San Martin is from XIII century and has the most beautiful Mozarabe ceiling made of intricate wood carvings in geometric designs. The plaza del toros is very ancient and was originally the plaza de armas, the assembling area for the army guarding the castle. There is an unusual shop in the main plaza, you can just about see it below, a man carefully cultivates bonsai chestnut, oak and beech trees.

Mogarraz is one of the more remote villages, not as visited, a rather creepy atmosphere of dilapidation, very haunting.
Something missing," bonum vinum laetificat cor hominis"
Yes, definitely!

La Alberca is the most important village, famed for the quality of its jamon and choriço, they have a unique way of honouring the pig. Every year at a special fiesta one pig is saved from slaughter and made the pet of the whole village, he wanders freely around the streets and is fed and petted until the inevitable on the eve of the next year fiesta.  All the fiestas in the area are ancient and incredibly colourful, we are determined to go back in August when the most interesting ones take place.

Miranda del Castañar is in a beautiful situation on a ridge surrounded by woodland and approached through cherry orchards. The roofs make an intricate interlocking pattern of tiles. It was an important templar stronghold and there are may Maltese crosses on the buildings. It is contained within the original walls which are double in some places with secret alley ways in between. We visited an amazing old bodega now a shop,  Tienda Museo Bodega La Muralla.
Some of the original huge wine barrels were still in place from when it was first established in 1755.  It is under the street level at the entrance, the wine was piped through the walls and sold through a tap on the other side which was on a different level, apparently it was still functioning until 1940.

Unfortunately we were unable to visit the famed monastery of Peña de Francia as a deep mist had descended so it seemed pointless to accend to 1500 m, very chilly and no view. Next time.
We departed on the incredibly tortuous road from La Alberca that winds its way down the mountain in sharp hairpin bends, down to the gorgeous Batueca valley, a paradise of running water and dense green woodlands. It is still very remote but one can imagine how completely other- worldly it must have been before the road access. It was here that the order of Carmelitas Descalzos de Castilla built their monastery in 1599. It is known as Santo Desierto de San José de las Batuecas 

The view of the monastery is stunning as one approaches down the valley, I was so looking forward to a good look around but it was not to be. The padres certainly didn't want to see me, all very well barred and bolted with a very unwelcoming can they say there is nothing of interest to see, how arrogant and dismissive, really cross.

 They live such privileged lives, so few of them living in a gorgeous country estate supported heavily by the state, there should be at least a few open days every now and then if only to remind them of the real world and how little their "contemplative order" has any effect on the lives of us who have to live outside their ivory tower grrrrrrrr!
We wanted to come back to the finca through Las Hurdes and stopped off to look down upon the so called Meandros del Alagón,  a spectacular part of the river Alagón, even more dramatic now as the water has receded due to the drought exposing another layer to the meander.


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